Blog

Good Beginnings

September 2nd 2018 Sermon by Pastor Galen Zook

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17).

Today we begin a new series on the topic of Creation, with a sermon entitled “Good Beginnings.” The psalm we read in our Call to Worship (Ps. 72:18-19) proclaimed that the whole earth is filled with the glory of God. The female songstress in our reading from the Hebrew Bible  employed lush images of nature to expound the many virtues of her Beloved (Song of Songs 2:8-13). And in our reading from the New Testament, James says that “every good and perfect gift” comes from God.

If you’re familiar with the biblical account of Creation, you know that when God finished creating the world, God said that it was “very good” (Gen. 1:31).

And it is true that there is so much goodness and beauty to behold in the world. If you’ve ever been out away from the lights of the city and stared up at the starry night sky, if you’ve ever wandered through the woods or a perfect, crisp clear morning and heard the birds singing sweetly in the trees, or if you’ve ever looked down from the grandeur of a lofty mountain or sat by a babbling brook and felt a gentle breeze, then you too have probably said, My God, how great thou art!

The beauty and complexity of creation points to the fact that there is indeed a Creator, and the care, concern, and creativity with which God created the world assures us that God does indeed care about us.

Now, we know that not all is good in the world. There is evil, and pain, and suffering. There is sickness, death, and destruction. And we’ll dive into those realities later on during this series. But this morning we want to reflect on the beginnings, the origins, the fact that God created the world to be a good place. And we want to reflect on the role and responsibility that God has given to us in caring for God’s creation.

You see, part of the mission of the church is to tell the world about God. So often we think in order to do that we must use words alone. And yet, the Psalmist tells us that “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). 

Our Role and Responsibility

So, one of the ways that we can tell the world about God is by taking care of God’s creation, because creation itself declares the wonders of God!

Think about it for a moment. If creation points to the Creator, and if creation reveals various aspects of God’s character, then wouldn’t we want to preserve the environment so that future generations have the opportunity to behold the wonder and majesty of creation, and therefore be led into awe and wonder of our Creator?

What this means, then, is that part of the task of the church (and of individual followers of Christ) is to take care of God’s creation. That means that recycling an aluminum can, preventing toxic chemicals from going into the ocean, or caring for an injured animal can be as holy a task as preaching a sermon or giving someone a Gospel tract! As Christians, when we care for the environment, we showcase God’s creation and help others see and experience God’s good gifts.

In fact, if we look further into the Genesis account of creation, we see that part of our original purpose as human beings was to care for the earth. In Genesis chapter 2, right after God created the first human being, God planted a garden (called the Garden of Eden), and “God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15).

The Value and Dignity of Work

Tomorrow is Labor Day, the day that we celebrate the worth and value of work. And so, it’s fitting to note that in the Bible, work was part of God’s original plan. Work is supposed to be one of those “good and perfect gifts” that James talks about that comes down from above, from the Father of Lights. Depending on how much you love your job you might normally think of work as a curse rather than a blessing! But God intended for us to do work that was creative, and meaningful, work that furthers and extends God’s creation, work that showcases and highlights God’s wondrous qualities.

Now the reality is that the work that we so often have to do is tiresome and toilsome, and so often we cannot see it contributing to a greater purpose. But it’s important that we remember that in the beginning, God intended work to be good. And even when the work that we are required to do may not seem to have a greater meaning or purpose, God is still able to bless and multiply the work of our hands.

What’s even more fascinating is that God, the God of the Universe, is not above doing work. In the first few chapters of Genesis we see God doing the work of creation. The Bible says that “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work” (Genesis 2:2). It also says that God formed man from the dust of the ground, and planted a garden.

We see God’s willingness to get down and dirty mostly clearly in God sending Jesus to earth to live among us. In the communion liturgy that we’re going to read later in our service, we will be reminded that Jesus was a carpenter, and that he gathered fisherman, activists, and wealthy businesswomen. Jesus delegated tasks and “empowered all his followers to do his divine work in this world.” Ultimately, Christ did the work of salvation and redemption, to free us from the bondage of slavery to sin and to make it possible for us to be raised to newness of life through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross.

Friends, this morning as we remember together Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection, tomorrow as we celebrate the value and dignity of human work, and throughout this month as celebrate God’s good gift of creation, let’s remember to worship the One who created all good things, including work. Let’s remember to give thanks to the One who gave us these good gifts. And let’s remember that part of our calling and mission and responsibility as individuals and as a church is to preserve and protect God’s good creation so that all may see and experience God’s love, mercy, and grace.

Moving Forward (In Love)

Ephesians 6:10-20

August 26th 2018 Sermon by Pastor Galen Zook

I don’t know about you, but I do not love conflict. In fact, I typically try to avoid it if possible!

But I’ve learned the hard way that conflict doesn’t go away on its own. You can’t make conflict disappear by simply ignoring it. Conflict needs to be addressed, and the fastest way to get through conflict is often to address it head on.

We’ve been talking the past few weeks about what it means to “live in love.” We talked about “building one another up in love” and “walking in love.” Last week we talked about “giving thanks in love.” And now this week we’re talking about “moving forward in love.”

It may seem odd that the text for a sermon entitled “moving forward in love” is all about struggle and conflict, with imagery of armor and weapons. But the reality is, love and conflict are not in opposition to one another. In fact, love often requires dealing with conflict. Imagine a love story that doesn’t involve some sort of tension, or struggle. It wouldn’t make a very interesting story, would it? When we really love someone we often have to fight to be with them, or to keep them.

Love doesn’t come easily. There’s always something that must be overcome — whether we’re talking about loving ourselves, loving a significant other, loving our neighbors, or loving God.

You could say that in some ways, the opposite of love is actually apathy — just simply not caring. When you really love someone or something, you care very deeply. It’s when you stop caring that you stop fighting.

And so, Paul closes his letter to the Ephesians, a letter in which he uses the word “love” 17 times (tied for fourth place in the New Testament), with a word about struggle and conflict. Paul doesn’t want us to give up or to be apathetic. He wants us to love God and one another so much that we are willing to engage in conflict, that we’re willing to do battle.

He wants us to be prepared for the fact that as followers of Christ we will have struggles. We will face conflict. It’s not a matter of if, but when. As a church and as individual Christians, there will be skirmishes. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re doing something wrong, in fact it might mean that we’re on the right track. If we are seeking to live in love and walk in community with others, there will be battles.

Paul has already talked about a number of struggles that we face throughout the book of Ephesians. In chapter four he talked about striving for unity in the midst of divisions within the body of Christ (4:3), about being on guard against false doctrines and deception (4:14), and how we need to try to get rid of bitterness, rage and anger (4:31). In chapter five he talked about avoiding sexual immorality (5:3) and greed (5:4). Each of these are struggles that we face not just outside the church, but within the church as well. Each of them can cause conflicts that threaten to deter us from walking in the way of love.

The True Source(s) of Conflict

The first thing that Paul wants us to be mindful of is the source of our conflicts.  Paul tells us that ultimately our struggle is not against other people. Although conflict often comes in the form of other people (and some people seem to stir up trouble wherever they go!), the real origin of our struggle as believers surpasses people – it goes all the way up to “rulers…authorities…powers of this dark world and…spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 6:12).

But before we go starting to look for demons behind every rock and tree, let’s keep in mind that these spiritual forces are not necessarily mysterious or unknown. The causes of division are racism, sexism, nationalism. The causes of greed are egocentrism, selfishness, and self-centeredness. Sexual immorality is about looking out for my wants and desires at the expense of others. Falsehood is about manipulating others for our own ends. In chapter five, Paul says that these things are essentially idolatry (5:4) – making ourselves the center of the universe, putting myself in the place of God, thinking that everything revolves around me.

Be Prepared

And so, Paul tells us that we need to be prepared. We need to be ready for battle. This battle is not against other people, but neither are these spiritual forces completely indiscernible. These spiritual forces are all around us, and if we’re honest, they’re inside each of us as well.

And so how do we prepare ourselves for spiritual battle? Well, the weapons and armor that we are to put on are fitting for the type of battle that we are engaged in.

The belt of truth. In order to identify what is false, we need to know what is true.

My wife Eboni and I both used to work as bank tellers. And do you know how we were taught to identify counterfeit bills? By memorizing what real money looks, feels, and smells like. It’s pretty much impossible to be alert and aware of every counterfeit bill in the world. If you tried to memorize every fake dollar bill in the world, you’d go crazy because you could never keep pace with all the counterfeits that are constantly being created. The only way to catch a counterfeit bill is to be so familiar with real money that when a counterfeit comes your way you know it’s not the real thing.

It’s the same way with false doctrine. We could try to study false religions and cults all day long in order to be aware of what we’re up against, but the only way to really guard against falsehood is to be so deeply rooted and grounded in the truth of Jesus Christ that we immediately know when something is counter to the way of Christ.

The Breastplate of righteousness. “Righteousness” is the same word in the Greek as “justice.” It’s “rightness,” the way things ought to be. Wearing the breastplate of righteousness means that we do not allow ourselves to get distracted or become complacent with the way things are. It means we’re constantly remembering the way things are supposed to be. Sometimes at work when there’s a policy that everyone disregards, the exception becomes the rule. You give up on following the right procedure because no one follows it anyway. But righteousness is keeping in mind the way things are supposed to be and actively working to make things right. 

Verse 15 says that we should have our “feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel [the Good News] of peace” (6:15). We need to be ready to go and to share the Good News about Jesus Christ. Notice that this is a gospel of peace. Although we’re talking about conflict and struggle, the end result of the Good News is peace. Not absence of conflict, but a real, genuine peace where everything is made right, where there is no more need for conflict because the sources of the conflict have been dealt with.

The shield of faith. Faith is not just about believing the right things. It’s about taking action on what we believe in. It’s about putting our absolute trust in God, recognizing our dependence on God. Faith in God doesn’t just happen overnight, it needs to be cultivated, it needs to deepen, but somehow if we’re able to do that, then we can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one.

One of the things that I love about this imagery of the shield is that Roman shields (which of course Paul is referring to here), were made to be joined together. Roman soldiers had these huge shields that basically covered their whole body. But each soldier didn’t just hide behind their own shield. They would link their shields together to form various formations – to form almost like a tank. The soldiers in the front would stand shoulder to shoulder with their swords in their right hands and their shields in their left, partially covering the soldier next to them. The soldiers in the middle of the formation would hold their shields over their heads to cover themselves and the soldiers in front of them and behind them. And they basically became this impenetrable formation not just to protect themselves, but so they could move forward and attack the enemy.

This is a beautiful picture of the Church. As we join forces, as we come together, we build up one another’s faith. Where my faith might be lacking, your faith might be strong, and where your faith is lacking my faith might be strong. Together we can encourage one another to trust and believe God for what we need.

And then lastly, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit. A helmet, because so often the enemy attacks our mind and tells us we’re not good enough, or not worthy enough. We need to be not just emotionally and spiritually prepared, but also mentally prepared to withstand the attacks of the evil one. This is why, in chapter three, Paul prays that the Ephesians would grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (3:18-19).

It’s interesting that Paul equates the “sword of the spirit” with “the word of God” (6:17), and it’s intriguing that he uses the image of a sword. The Holy Spirit, speaking through the Word of God, cuts through the lies, the falsehoods, the things that threaten to separate us and divide us. The Holy Spirit allows us to perceive the true causes of division, and that allows us to get to the heart of conflict and struggle.

Friends, in this life we will have struggles. We will face trials and temptations. But as Jesus says in the Gospel of John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

We will face conflict. It’s inevitable!  We will face struggles, both individually and as a community. But we need to remember that the real source of our struggles is not each other. There are forces at work beyond our realm that are striving to tear us apart. But, armored with truth, righteousness, the Gospel of peace, faith, and salvation, with the Holy Spirit and the Word of God as our armament, we can not only withstand everything the enemy brings our way, but we can actually move forward! We can move forward with the love of God, bringing God’s love to those who need it most, those who have never experienced the love and grace and mercy of God. We need each other, we cannot do this alone. With God’s help and the love and commitment of each other, we can move forward in love!

Recapturing Awe and Wonder

Ephesians 5:15-20 

August 19th 2018 Sermon by Pastor Galen Zook

How many of you have ever received a gift, but you didn’t know who it came from? Maybe it was a package you received in the mail with no return address label, or a gift given at a party with no card inside telling you who it was from. Or perhaps someone did something nice for you, but you had no idea who to thank.

As wonderful as it is to receive a gift like that, it can actually be really frustrating when you feel really grateful but don’t know how to express that gratitude.

Here in Ephesians 5, Paul makes it clear how and where to express our gratitude. Since everything we have ultimately comes from God, Paul says we should “sing and make music from [our] hearts to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 5:19-20).

This doesn’t mean that we can’t express our gratitude to people who do nice things for us, but we are to recognize that everything we have ultimately comes from God. Or, as the book of James tells us, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father…” (James 1:17).

So anytime we receive something good we know that ultimately it comes from God and it is good and right to express our gratitude to God.

Wise Living

These past few weeks as we’ve dug into Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we’ve been challenged to “build one another up in love,” to “live in love,” and now, to “give thanks…in love.”

In these five short verses, the apostle Paul covers an eclectic range of topics – everything from wisdom, to knowing the will of God, to wine, drunkenness, the Holy Spirit, music, and thanksgiving. Talk about a seemingly random train of thought!

Wisdom is of course the thread that ties together our Scripture readings for today. In Psalm 111 we learned that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. 111:10).  In 1 Kings, King Solomon asked for wisdom in order to judge justly, and God granted his request, giving him both wealth and honor in addition to wisdom.

And here in Ephesians 5, Paul tells us that we should live wisely, “making the most of every opportunity.” Paul equates wisdom with “understand[ing] what the Lord’s will is.” And somehow this conversation about knowing the will of God ends with singing songs and giving thanks to God!

What’s the Deal with all the Singing?

In a society where everything is all about the bottom line, where we’re all about productivity and getting things done efficiently, singing can seem like a trivial waste of time. From an outside perspective, it probably seems odd that one of the things we do every week when we come together in church is to sing songs. Don’t we have anything better to do with our time than singing these old hymns?

And yet, Paul seems to say that singing and giving thanks to God is a wise use of our time. That in fact it’s a much better use of our time than many other things we could be doing, such as, for example in verse 18, getting drunk on wine. Paul says that it’s precisely because we should live wisely and make the most of our time that we should be filled with the Spirit and sing songs of praise and Thanksgiving to God. Why is that?

We Were Made for This

Well, in the book of Isaiah, we learn that we were made to glorify God. God says that we were created for God’s glory (Is. 43:7). And so, if we wonder what the Lord’s will is, which Paul seems to equate with living wisely, it’s to bring honor and glory to God. When we give God praise, we are living into God’s purpose for our lives.

You see, if we’re really wise, we recognize that we were created for more than ourselves. We’re a part of something bigger, we’re a part of God’s grand design in creation to bring honor and glory to God. And so those who are truly wise spend their time living not for themselves, but living to bring God glory and praise.

In truth, there are countless ways we can glorify God, not just through singing. We can glorify God through our work, through our relationships, through serving others. But singing songs to God is a way that we particularly focus our thoughts and attention on God in a concerted way. Although we can and should honor and glorify God every moment of the day, all week long, it’s so easy for us to lose sight of our greater purpose and identity in the midst of our daily lives at work, taking the kids to school, making dinner, watching TV. In singing praises to God, we are reminded that everything we have comes from God, and we are prompted to give thanks accordingly.

Music plays a vital role in our spirituality. Music redirects our thoughts and attention away from the busyness of this world. It slows us down, and focuses our attention on God. The songs we sing in church remind us of God’s love and goodness and grace, and they give voice to the inner thoughts and feelings of gratitude that we have.  Music provides an avenue for us to express our appreciation, love, and devotion to God. Music has the ability to move us beyond ourselves, to focuses our thoughts on the One who is worthy of all of our praise. Rather than an inefficient waste of time, singing to God is actually one of the wisest ways we can spend our time because it recalibrates everything in our lives around God.

Recapturing our Sense of Awe and Wonder

But singing songs in church is not just an individual experience between me and God. Paul says here that we should “[speak] to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit” (Eph. 5:19).

I have to admit that this struck me as odd when I first read it. Don’t we sing songs of praise to God? Why does Paul say that we should speak these psalms and hymns to one another?

I think the reason Paul says this is because it’s so easy for our senses to become dulled, for us to lose our sense of awe and wonder. It’s amazing how quickly we get bored.

Think about something that used to fill you with awe and wonder that you now take for granted.

I can still remember the first time I flew in an airplane and saw the clouds from up above. I was 10 years old, and my family was flying to Mexico. To me, seeing the clouds from above was the most amazing sight in the world. I remember loudly exclaiming to all of my family members, insisting every 10 seconds that they look out the window. “Look, now the clouds look like cotton!”  “Look at the clouds now, now they look like marshmallows!” “Look, I can see the ground beneath the clouds! Isn’t that amazing?”

For many of us, that’s how it felt when we first encountered God. Maybe you didn’t grow up going to church and you heard the Gospel for the first time as a teenager or adult. Or maybe you grew up going to church, but at some point in time you had a life-changing encounter with God. You were struck with awe and wonder at God’s love for you. Maybe you came to a point of desperation and in need of God’s healing or forgiveness and you felt God’s love and mercy wash over you and make you new. You were amazed and in awe of God. God’s grace was the most beautiful, amazing thing ever, and you wanted to share it with everyone around you! You wanted them to experience God’s love and mercy for themselves!

But in time, that initial excitement and sense of awe and wonder often fades away.

I only fly a few times per year, but now when I do travel by air, I rarely take notice of the clouds. Usually I read a book or try to take a nap on the plane and I barely glance out the window at all. Somehow over the years I’ve become inoculated to the grandeur of the clouds from up above.

But recently I was on a flight and I overhead a child, about the same age I was on my first flight, who was having the same reaction to the clouds that I did when I first flew in an airplane. At first, to be honest, I was slightly annoyed. I was probably trying to read or take a nap and this kid was being disruptive. But he was so excited and persistent, that eventually I looked out the window, and it actually was pretty amazing! I started to reappreciate the beauty of the view, and the amazing wonder of flying higher than the clouds.

Coming to church, fellowshipping with others, singing songs of praise to God can be kind of like that. In church we interact with people from many different ages and stages of life, many different spiritual backgrounds. We worship alongside people who have been followers of Christ their whole lives, and others who have just come to faith in Christ recently, and maybe others who are still seeking truth. And we all need each other. We need to help each other recapture our sense of awe and wonder of God’s love, mercy and grace. Sometimes we might get slightly annoyed by each other. But we need each other, to remind ourselves of who God is, and of who we are in Christ. Coming to church, fellowshipping with others, singing songs of praise to God is a way that we can remind each other of our who we are and why we’re here on this earth.

The Worship Cycle

I’ve noticed an interesting cycle in worship, when we honestly and truly bring ourselves before God. Worship often starts with gratitude for something that God has done for us, or perhaps a recognition of God’s love for us. Our gratitude naturally flows into love and appreciation for God. We think about how wonderful and amazing God is and we give honor and glory to God.

But the more we think about God’s goodness, it eventually leads us to compare ourselves to God. And we recognize how unworthy we are of God’s love, and how far short we fall in comparison to God’s love and mercy.

This recognition of our sin (how we’ve missed the mark) and inadequacy leads us to repentance (to turn away from our wrongdoing). We’re led to ask for God’s grace and mercy. When we repent, we realize that God is always willing to extend grace and mercy to us, and so we feel God’s love, mercy and forgiveness wash over us anew. This of course leads us right back into praise and worship, and the cycle continues.

Invitation to Respond

This morning I want to invite us to enter into that cycle of worship in whatever way you feel led. Some of you may be overwhelmed with praise and thanksgiving to God. Let this next song be a way that you express your gratitude to God. Others of you may not be at that place. Maybe there’s something going on in your life, and you just really are struggling to praise the Lord. Maybe you need prayer for a particular situation in your life. During this song and during the Prayers of the People afterwards, I want to invite you to fill out the prayer request card in the insert in your bulletin. Or if you want, you can even come forward to the altar to prayer. I would be happy to pray with and for you.

As we sing, let’s sing our praises not only to God, but let’s also remind each other of God’s love and grace and goodness. Let’s work together to recapture our collective sense of awe and reverence for God. Let’s live into our identity and purpose as children of God. And let’s give God the glory and praise that God is due!

Live In Love

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

39002412_10102294296897573_5597530829908606976_o

August 12th 2018 Sermon by Pastor Galen Zook

James Baldwin once said, “Children have never been good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”

Children are amazingly perceptive imitators. Our 2-year-old daughter is at the age where she mimics pretty much anything we say or do. One of the things she loves is when I pick her up and carry her on my shoulders, or as she says, “I want to sit on your neck!” And so guess how she carries her baby doll around the house? Not cradled in her arms, but around her neck, just like I carry her on my shoulders.

When I was in Kindergarten, people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. My answer? A state worker! Any guesses why? The answer, of course, is that my father was a state worker. I really had no idea what my dad did, other than that he sat in an office at a green desk. But I wanted to be just like my dad, so since my dad was a state worker, I wanted to be one too!

In Ephesians 5, Paul tells the Ephesians to “be imitators of God, as beloved children” (5:1). Talk about having big shoes to fill! “Be imitators of God.” That’s a pretty tall order. We are to mimic the words and actions of none other than God the Father! Often the concept of becoming like God is relegated to other religions. We think that it’s impossible to be like God, so why even try? But here Paul exhorts us to imitate God.

The key here is “as beloved children.” Just as it comes naturally for children to imitate their parents or guardians, so too as we embrace our identity as dearly loved children of God, we naturally become imitators of God. As we get to know our Father’s heart, our hearts start to break for the things that break God’s heart. As we grow in knowledge and intimacy with God, we start to respond the way God would respond. As we observe God’s actions in our own lives and the grace God has extended to us, we begin to extend that same grace to other people.

As Christ Loved Us

Of course, our understanding of who God is drastically shapes the way that we imitate God. So Paul goes on to say that we imitate God by living “in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (5:2). Jesus is the clearest picture we have of God. If we want to know what God looks like, if we want to know how exactly to imitate God, or what it looks like to respond the way God would respond, all we have to do is to look at Jesus.

The classic book, “In His Steps” by Charles Sheldon written in 1896, tells the fictional account of a railroad town in the eastern U.S., where the Rev. Henry Maxwell challenges his congregation not to do anything for a whole year without first asking, “What Would Jesus Do?” The town is turned completely inside out as church members start to act according to Christlike principles. The book was of course the inspiration for the WWJD bracelet craze back in the 1990’s. But the heart of the book, and the question, is to put into practice this idea of becoming imitators of God by imitating Christ.

Paul points us not only to Christ’s love as an example for us, but specifically to Christ’s sacrificial love, expressed in the way that Christ gave himself as a sacrificial offering for us. Jesus’s life and death on the cross embody God’s love for us. All throughout Jesus’s life he poured himself out for the lost, gave himself for the poor and needy, loved the sick and dying, the marginalized, and the least of these. He gave himself fully to us, even to the point of dying on the cross in our place. If we want to know what it looks like to imitate God, all we have to do is to look at the way Christ loved us and gave himself for us in life and in death.

Walk in the Way  of Love

And finally, Paul tells us to “live in love, as Christ loved us” — or, as some translations say, “Walk in the way of love” (5:2 NIV). Walking in the way of love means that love is both the destination, and the route we take. We cannot walk the road of hate and expect to arrive at love. Love is both the end, and the means.

The type of love with which Christ loved and gave himself for us is not the flaky, “here today and gone tomorrow” sort of love that we talk about in our society. We love that sports team, or that car, that purse, or that outfit, or that hairstyle, until we’re tired of it or it’s no longer in style.  Often love is code for “I want.” One of my seminary professors likes to point out that often when we say, “I love you” to another person, what we frequently mean is “I love me, and I want you!”

But walking in the way of love entails dying to ourselves. It means speaking the truth in love (4:25). It means not going to bed angry (4:26). It means choosing words that build others up, rather than tearing them down (4:29). It means extending grace to others, just as God has extended grace to us (4:32). Loving others with the type of love that Christ has for us means putting others’ needs before our own. It means loving someone even when they are unlovely. It means loving someone, not because of what they can do for us or what they can give us, but simply because they too are a child of God.

As children of God, we begin to act like God. We love like Christ loved us. We live like Christ lived. We walk in the way of Christ’s love.

Part of what that means is that we join hands with people across racial, denominational, and even faith traditions, to stand up against hatred and division. We refuse to buy into the lie that certain people are less valuable or significant than others. We love and welcome all people, regardless of their socio economic, cultural, or political background. Walking in the way of love means standing up for love at all costs.

United To Love

As you probably know, the white supremacists that organized the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia one year ago today, are attempting to recreate that rally today in Lafayette Square in Washington D.C.

In response, a group of over 400 of our fellow United Methodist church members from the Baltimore and Washington area are gathering on the National Mall in Washington D.C., joining together with people from many different organizations and faith traditions for a rally called “United To Love: Rally for Love, Peace, and Justice.” The goal of the rally is to provide a prayerful response and call to action to the Unite the Right rally happening today.

According to our Bishop LaTrelle Easterling,

“It is my belief that the way to respond to negativity is not by silencing it; rather, the outpouring of love should be so strong as to overwhelm it. In that spirit, our numbers should completely overwhelm and drown out any messages of hate, exclusion, or division.” – Bishop LaTrelle Easterling

And so our Bishop sent out a call around the country, inviting all individuals, faith communities and organizations to cross lines of difference and “gather together to uplift the human spirit, renounce all forms of hate and show that we are #unitedtolove.”

I want to invite us to pray for our fellow Christians who are standing today in love, confronting the hatred and vitriol that is being spewed by White Supremacists. Let us pray that our love as followers of Christ would overwhelm the messages of hate, exclusion, and division. Let’s pray that as we walk in love and become imitators of God, that we would be able to point others to the love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness that God offers. Love is a powerful force. Let us love freely, love boldly, and live in God’s love!

Getting In Sync

hands-in-teamwork_header1

Ephesians 4:1-16

Aug. 5th 2018, Sermon by Pastor Galen Zook

How many of you have ever played on a sports team, been a part of a choir, played in a band or orchestra, or worked together on a group project at work or school?

Working together as part of a team can be incredibly challenging, can’t it? It takes a LOT of practice. Depending on what you’re doing, working together can be grueling and exhausting. But there is something so beautiful when your team starts working together in perfect synchronization to move the ball down the court, or when your group finally comes up with the perfect solution to a problem together. It’s an amazing experience to hear your musical instrument blend together in perfect harmony with all of the other instruments around you and feel the music swell to a crescendo.

It’s moments like this that make all of the hard work and hours of practice worth it. You get that feeling that you’re a part of something bigger than yourself, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

But all of this does not come easily. Part of the challenge is that everyone is different. Everyone comes in with their own goals, or ideas, or what they think is best. We’re shaped by our backgrounds, our experiences in life, and these things influence the way we think about the world and approach particular situations.

Sometimes I think it would just be so much easier to get along with everyone if they were just like me, if everyone had my same personality and preferences and sense of humor. But we’re not all the same. And that’s actually a good thing!  Imagine if everyone wanted to play the same position on a sports team. Or if everyone wanted to play the same musical instrument in an orchestra! When you’re working on a group project, it’s actually better to have people with different skill sets. You need someone who is good at research and design, someone else who is good at taking notes and keeping track of all the details, someone who is good at managing people and keeping everyone on task.

You’ve probably heard people say the phrase, “let’s just put aside our differences and work together!” But often its those differences that are exactly what we need in order to achieve our goal! Most often, rather than putting those differences aside, we have to lean into those differences, and recognize those differences as strengths rather than weaknesses. It’s only then that we can work together toward to reach the goal.

But it takes a lot of perseverance, a lot of patience, and a whole lot of practice. And it’s the same in the Church.

The book of Ephesians was written as a letter to be circulated around to churches in cities all over the area. Within each of those cities and churches there was a wide diversity of people — men and women, boys and girls, young and old, people from many different nationalities and cultural backgrounds. The majority of the people that Paul was writing to were Gentiles, which was a term used for anyone who wasn’t Jewish. The word Gentile literally means “The Nations.” And so Paul was writing to people from every cultural, economic, and geographical background you can imagine.

Here in chapter 4 we see that not only did they have a wide variety of cultural backgrounds, but they also had a lot of different personalities, preferences, likes, and dislikes. And they had a wide variety of roles and responsibilities within the Church. Paul mentions that some of them were Apostles (meaning they were sent out to proclaim the Gospel), some were prophets, meaning that they were great at hearing from God and conveying that message to the people, some were evangelists, meaning that they were great at explaining the Christian faith and drawing in people who didn’t know Jesus. Some were pastors, meaning their gifts were in caring for people and helping them grow spiritually. Some were teachers (like our wonderful Sunday School teachers) and could explain the truths of the Gospel to people of all ages. And others were gifted in service – like those among us who help with the Sunday morning worship service, and visit the sick and home-bound, and serve in our food pantry.

Please note that Paul is not just talking about the leaders, or even just those who are really spiritually mature here. He is talking about each person in the church — each one of us in the church have gifts that we can use to build up the Body of Christ. Every one of us has a different role to play, and that’s a good thing! Imagine if everyone wanted to sing in the choir — there would be no one to listen! Or if everyone played the piano! (We’d have to get a lot more pianos!) Or if everyone wanted to preach (I’m really glad we don’t have that problem because our service would go really long on Sunday mornings!) I’m glad that we have a diversity of gifts in the church.

But just like on a sports team, or orchestra, or a group working on a project at work or school, it takes a lot of patience, perseverance and practice to work together.

And so, Paul tells the Ephesians to:

  1. Be humble and gentle (4:2)
  2. Be patient, bearing with one another in love (4:2)
  3. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit (4:3)
  4. Build one another up in love (4:16)

Paul recognizes that it’s not always easy to get along with each other, even within the church. The phrases that he uses: “Be Patient,” “bear with one another,” “make every effort” — these phrases show how challenging it can be to work together. Paul knows it’s difficult. But Paul urges the Ephesians (and us), to “make every effort.” In other words, let’s do our best! Let’s give it our best shot. The great news is that we’re not doing it on our own, we have God to help us, and Jesus has already gone before us and done the heavy lifting. By Christ’s death on the cross he has already reconciled us to God and to one another. We just have to live that out.

But it’s not just about getting along. The end goal is to build each other up, and proclaim God’s love to those who have never experienced God’s love. This doesn’t come easily. As with any group, we have to work together, strive together, and practice together to make this happen. But when it does happen it’s a beautiful thing.

Our Weekly Workout

Sunday morning worship is just a small part of what it means to be the Church.  We are the Church 24/7, not just on Sunday mornings! Church happens every day of the week as we strive together as a Body of Christ to proclaim God’s goodness and love to the world.

There are so many divisions within the Body of Christ. Racial and cultural and denominational fault lines divide the Body of Christ on a global scale. But here, in worship each Sunday morning, in our little congregation, despite our differences in backgrounds, and experiences, personalities and preferences, we practice moving together in synchronization. 

Sure, each of us could say, “I’m just going to stay at home and worship God by myself, in my own way.” But instead, we choose to come together. We allow our voices to blend together in unison as we sing songs to express our shared beliefs and remind one another of what God has done for us. We pray prayers together as an outward expression of our desire for the Church to be united, and as a physical expression of the unity that we have been given in Christ. We break bread together as a reminder that we have been reconciled to God and one another. We Share the Peace, and worship our one Lord, our “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (4:6).

This morning as we prepare for our Communion Service, let’s respond in worship together by singing together “Bind Us Together.”  And let this be our prayer as we seek to live into the unity that God has given us in Christ, and move in sync with God and with one another!

Bind us together Lord,
bind us together with cords that cannot be broken.
Bind us together Lord,
bind us together Lord, bind us together in love

There is only one God, there is only one King.

There is only one body, that is why we sing!

Front Row Seats

011-jesus-5000

John 6:1-15

July 29th 2018, Sermon by Pastor Galen Zook

The story of Jesus Feeding the 5,000 is a favorite Sunday School story, and many of us who have grown up in church have probably heard this story many times. So this morning I want to invite us to enter into this story from a slightly different perspective, by focusing in on the boy who gave his lunch to help Jesus feed a multitude of people. Let’s see what God may have for us to learn this morning as we look at this story from a different angle. 

The following is my imaginative retelling of the story of the boy who gave his lunch to help Jesus feed 5,000 people:

Johnny was one of those rare kids who always loved going to school. He was actually sad when harvest season rolled around. They had to close school for harvest season because so many of his schoolmates were from farming families, and all hands were needed on deck during harvest season. Not that that really mattered to Johnny’s family, since his father was a fisherman, and fish were “harvested” year-round.

When school was not in session, Johnny took it upon himself to seek out his own educational enrichment opportunities. He was a voracious learner, and like most kids, he had a natural curiosity about life. Johnny was known for always carrying something to take notes with. Since parchment and papyrus were incredibly expensive, Johnny used whatever he could find — often etching notes onto broken pieces of pottery or other found objects. No matter where he went, he was always carefully observing and often recording anything that he thought might be useful for him to remember some day.

Fishing mostly took place at night and in the very early morning, so Johnny’s father was long gone by the time Johnny woke up in the mornings. Every morning, Johnny jumped out of bed at the crack of dawn, got dressed as quickly as possible, scarfed down his breakfast, and ran down to the docks to see if he could catch a glimpse of his father’s fishing vessel hauling in the catch of fish from that night. Johnny knew he would be expected to lend a helping hand, but what he really wanted was to observe and document his father’s every move. He wanted to learn everything he could about the fishing business — not just how to catch, clean, and scale fish, but also how to haggle for the best price at the wholesalers in the marketplace and how to handle the accounting for a minor fishing operation. He figured that if he was going to take over the family business someday, he needed to get started preparing as soon as possible. And these are the kinds of things that they don’t really teach you in school.

This morning, like most mornings, Johnny was up at the crack of dawn. He threw on his clothes and scarfed down his breakfast. But he wasn’t heading to the fishing docks today. Johnny had heard a rumor that the famous teacher/miracle worker Jesus of Nazareth was in the area. Johnny really wanted to hear Jesus teach – he figured he needed to learn about all aspects of life, not just the fishing business, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to learn new things. He enjoyed learning the Jewish history and laws that they taught in school, but from what he heard, Jesus’s teachings were quite different.

Johnny’s parents weren’t very excited about his plans for the day, but several of their neighbors were planning to go hear Jesus speak, so they told Johnny to stick with someone that he knows. Johnny’s mother even packed a lunch for him — a couple small loaves of bread and some grilled fish that his father had caught the day before. She threw in a few additional small loaves of bread in case one of Johnny’s friends forgot their lunch.

And with that, Johnny was out the door. And none too soon, because everywhere he looked people were streaming out of their houses.  Someone yelled, “he’s going to the other side!” and then took off running. Johnny joined the crowd of people rushing, not sure where they were going, he just knew they were going to get to hear Jesus. It turned out that Jesus and his disciples had gotten into a boat and were heading to the other side of the sea! Johnny had never been on that side of the sea before, but he had determined in his mind to see Jesus, and he wasn’t about to give up now. In fact, the whole crowd was so determined to see Jesus that they kept running the whole way around the sea and beat Jesus and his disciples to the other side!

It wasn’t until that point that Johnny realized he had completely forgotten to bring anything to take notes with!  This was probably one of the most important days of his life, and he had absolutely no way to document it. He’d just have to pay extra close attention to what Jesus was saying and doing so he could write down everything that evening when he got home.

What Johnny did have, however, was his lunch.  Actually he was so glad his mother had the foresight to pack it for him since they were kind of in the middle of nowhere, and they had been running so long that Johnny was already feeling quite hungry. He decided to wait to eat, though, because he didn’t know how long Jesus was going to teach and he didn’t want to miss a single word.

It wasn’t long before he heard some commotion in the crowd. One of the men who had arrived on the boat with Jesus was passing through the crowd, asking if anyone had any food with them to help feed the crowd. Johnny looked around, fully expecting to see everyone raise their hands. But no one did. Had no one else brought food with them? Was Johnny the only one? The man was getting closer. Johnny started to get nervous. Was he really going to be asked to give up his lunch? What would he do? He didn’t want to lie, but he was already really hungry, and his lunch was hardly enough for him and maybe a couple of his friends — not nearly enough for this mob of people. The man was coming closer, still asking if anyone had food to help feed the multitude! Johnny started to sweat, and quickly tucked his lunch inside his cloak. But immediately he felt a slight clenching in his chest. Was it right for Johnny to keep his lunch for himself? What if there were others who needed it more than him? Johnny could go one day without eating, right?

Slowly, Johnny brought his lunch out from underneath his cloak and murmured hesitantly, “I have some food!” The man didn’t hear him at first, but one of Johnny’s neighbors yelled out, “this boy has some food!” The man rushed over excitedly, until he saw the paltry contents of Johnny’s lunch. “Thank you,” the man shrugged. “It’s not much, but come with me and we’ll see what the master says.”

The man (who Johnny later found out was named Andrew), took Johnny right up to the front of the crowd and introduced him to Jesus. Johnny almost fainted from a combination of fear, excitement, and hunger. In the midst of the haziness, Johnny heard Jesus say “Thank you” and then instruct his disciples to have everyone sit down on the grass.  Johnny saw Jesus hold up the five small barley loaves, give thanks, and then hand the loaves to his disciples. To Johnny, everything after that point was a blur.

What happened next, or exactly how it happened, we’ll probably never fully comprehend.  Did the fish and loaves multiply in Jesus’s hands, or in the baskets while the disciples were handing them out? Some people think that each person only got a crumb, and the miracle was that they felt full with only a crumb! But the Gospel of John tells us that there were twelve baskets filled with food left over afterwards, much more food than they started with!

Other biblical scholars, who try to explain away the miraculous nature of Jesus’s ministry, say that perhaps others in the crowd, upon seeing the little boy sacrificially give his lunch, felt conviction in their hearts and pulled out their own secret stashes of food and shared their lunches as well. The “miracle” in this case was that Jesus had the power to convict people of their lack of generosity and motivate greedy people to share.

But the Gospel of John seems to indicate that this was indeed a miracle, that somehow Jesus multiplied five small loaves of bread and two fish to feed a hungry multitude, that everyone had plenty to eat, and that there was more food left over than when they started. John even calls it a “sign,” and says that afterwards people knew Jesus was a prophet and wanted to make him their king!

So what can we learn from this story?

Well, I believe there are a number of lessons we can learn:

#1. that God has the miraculous power to provide, to take whatever we have and multiply it to make it enough.

#2. that when we hear Jesus inviting us to do something, no matter how crazy it may seem, we can trust that God will work it out for our good.

And #3. that if we’re ever going to the middle of a deserted place to hear a religious faith healer teach, we should always pack a lunch! 😃

But this morning I want to invite us to consider the fact that Jesus chose to use a small boy’s lunch to feed over 5,000 men. (Some estimate that the crowd was probably closer to 20,000 including women and children). Jesus probably could have caused fish and loaves to spontaneously appear out of thin air. But he didn’t. Instead he chose to invite this young boy to participate in this miracle, and to multiply this small boy’s faith and generosity to feed all of those people.

And this is how it is all throughout the Bible. God works through people — even when it might be more efficient, cleaner, and less complicated for God to do it without using people, God consistently chooses to work in and through people.

God called Adam and Eve to tend the garden, to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. God called Abraham to leave his homeland at the age of 75! God called Moses to free the Israelites from slavery, he called Deborah to be a judge. God worked through King David, Queen Esther, and the prophets all throughout the Bible. Even though God could have done all of these things apart from people, God chose to work in and through flawed, sinful, human beings.

And it’s the same today. God doesn’t need us. But God invites each one of us to participate in God’s mission to share God’s love with the whole world.

Even though, as our Old Testament Reading today stated,

“All have turned away, all have become corrupt;
   there is no one who does good,
   not even one.” (Psalm 14:3)

And yet, God sent Jesus to seek and to save the lost. God invites us to be transformed, to be reconciled to God, and to participate in God’s work in the world!

As the Psalm goes on to say,

“Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
   When the Lord restores his people,
   let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!” (Psalm 14:7)

In the same way we can rejoice and be glad that God has brought salvation to us, and that we get to participate in God’s mission in the world. I don’t know why God chooses to work through people, but all I know is that when we say “yes” to following Jesus and participating in God’s mission, we get front row seats to see how God is work in the world. We are invited not just to observe and document, but to experience God working in and through us.

This morning I want to invite us to respond to Jesus, by offering ourselves to Jesus. For some of us, Jesus might be inviting us to give of our time, talents, resources to serve God. For others, that might mean giving our lives to Jesus for the first time. Perhaps for you that means joining the church, or being confirmed. Perhaps there’s something else that Jesus is inviting you to give over to him. Let’s respond together by singing: “Take My Life and Let It Be.”  Let this be our prayer of response today!

Take my life, and let it be
consecrated, Lord, to thee.
Take my moments and my days;
let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my hands, and let them move
at the impulse of thy love.
Take my feet, and let them be
swift and beautiful for thee.

Sheep and Bubbles

bubble parade

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

July 22nd 2018, Sermon by Pastor Galen Zook

In our society we have a love-hate relationship with crowds. We measure the success or popularity of a speaker, musician, and even preacher by the size of the crowd they draw. We assume that a book must be good if it’s a best-seller, and that a movie must be amazing because it’s a box office hit. On the other hand, we are told that while two is company, Three’s a Crowd. We’re told that we’re supposed to stand apart from the crowd, to be special and unique and not to blindly follow along with what everyone else is doing.

Personally I love being around a crowd of people.  I get energy from being around a lot of people. But there are some times when I just want to be by myself, or at most in the company of a few close friends or family members.

In Mark’s Gospel account, the disciples have just finished a time of intensive ministry, and are looking forward to a little time by themselves. Jesus had sent them out to heal and deliver people and to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and they had incredible ministry success.  It must have been both exhilarating and exhausting. They want to tell Jesus all about it, and have some time to just relax in the company of Jesus.

They have no idea, however, that their ministry had been so effective that throngs of people are now flocking to see Jesus.

One of my favorite images in all of Scripture is this picture of Jesus and his disciples going across the Sea of Galilee to a deserted place, and the crowds of people getting wind of it, and running around around the sea to meet him on the other side. The disciples think that they’re going to finally get some time to rest and relax, all the while completely oblivious to the fact that crowds of people are sprinting along the seashore trying to beat them to the other side.

What was it about Jesus that made the crowds rush to Jesus? Was it curiosity? Did they just want to be entertained, to see him do a miracle, to get some free bread?  Or was it something deeper? Were they looking for meaning, and purpose, to be a part of something bigger than themselves?

Whatever the reason, Jesus did not turn them away.  Although Jesus and the disciples had been looking forward to a little time to relax apart from the crowds, Jesus had compassion on the crowd, and saw that they were like sheep in need of a shepherd.  He taught them, healed them, and fed them.  He gave them what they wanted (healing, free food, and miracles) in order to give them what they needed (forgiveness, freedom from sin, reconciliation with God, and the truth of the Word of God). He spent his whole life loving and caring for the crowds, eventually giving his own life by dying on the cross because of his great love for each one of us.

Jesus had this amazing ability to see each and every person in the crowd as individuals, as people uniquely formed in the image of God.  He saw that the crowd was made up of individuals in need of compassion, a healing touch, and a word from God. He saw each and every person in the crowd as a sheep in need of a shepherd.

Draw Crowds

The United Methodist Church’s Discipleship Ministries’ website entitled today’s Gospel Lesson “Draw Crowds.” To be honest, I kind of chuckled a little bit when I saw the title. I mean, it’s not like the crowds are running from all over Hampden to listen to me speak, or standing in line to get into our church on Sunday mornings. And if I knew what it would take to draw crowds of people to come to our church, I would probably try to do that.

But I realized that I was looking at it all wrong. The assumption is not that throngs of people are flocking into our doors. Nor is the assumption that if we could just find the magic ticket then people would start beating down our doors to get in.

Instead, I think this is an invitation for us to get to know the crowds. To see the crowds, to have compassion on them, and begin (or continue) the slow, sometimes fun, but often laborious process of trying to draw people in and point them towards Jesus.

Hampden

As you are probably aware, Hampden, and The Avenue in particular, has become a pretty popular destination point. The Live Baltimore website says that Hampden is “one of the most desirable of Baltimore’s neighborhoods…to live, work and play…[It’s] also a fun place to visit with scores of elegant to funky stores, eclectic restaurants and special events.” Hampden is known for being “quirky and fun.”

But the reality is that the crowds of adventure-seeking fun-loving people flocking to Hampden’s local eclectic restaurants and funky stores are not necessarily flocking to our perhaps equally quirky and eclectic churches.

Like the crowds in Jesus’s day, many of the crowds flocking to Hampden are in need of God’s love and compassion. Many of them have never experienced the love, grace, and mercy that Jesus offers. They are sheep without a shepherd, they just don’t realize it.  Maybe they don’t realize that they are in need of Jesus. Maybe they don’t think that churches can meet their needs. But this is an invitation for us to do whatever we can, to draw them in. There are times when we need to give them what they want — to meet their surface-level desires — so that we can eventually point them to the One who can meet their deeper innermost needs.

This passage is an invitation for us to see the crowds. To really see them.  To see them with God’s eyes of compassion. To see the crowds as sheep who are in need of a shepherd, to draw them in, and to point them to Jesus.

Lessons from the Global Bubble Parade

Two weeks ago our family saw a crowd gathering across the street at Roosevelt Park at 1pm on a Sunday afternoon. Families were streaming from all over the neighborhood.  People of all ages were pulling up on bikes and skateboards, and getting out of cars and minivans. We were curious what was going on, so we went to find out. It turns out that it was the “4th Annual Baltimore Bubble Parade. Apparently this is a global phenomenon where people get together and parade down the street blowing soap bubbles, with the express purpose of promoting happiness. (According to the Global Bubble Parade website, the “Global Bubble Parade is a movement of passionate individuals who share the belief that happiness is the journey, not the destination, by joining together in peaceful local parades of soap bubbles.”) Over 300 people participated in the 2018 Fourth Annual Baltimore Bubble Parade two weeks ago here in Hampden.

The Baltimore Bubble Parade showed me that the crowds today are not so different than in Jesus’s day. Although the crowds may not be streaming into churches and they may not be looking to Jesus, people are still looking for meaning, and purpose, for happiness, a place to belong. They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

Friends, we have something (or rather, Someone!) so much bigger than ourselves.  We have a Savior, a Redeemer, whose heart of love and compassion is so big that God’s heart encompasses the whole world. We have been given purpose, we’ve been called to proclaim the kingdom of God through word and deed. We have found a place to belong. And we’ve been given so much more than happiness — we’ve been given everlasting joy in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And this is not just for us — this is meant to be shared with everyone we come into contact with — yes, even the crowd.

Let’s ask God for opportunities to demonstrate to God’s heart of compassion to those around us.  Let’s ask God to break our hearts for crowds around us, particularly those who are sheep in need of a shepherd.  Let’s ask God to reveal to us the hidden longings of people’s hearts, to show us how we can use our collective creativity and ingenuity to draw people in and to point them to the Good Shepherd who loves each and every lost sheep — the Good Shepherd who knows each person by name and was willing to lay down his life for each one of us lost sheep (see John 10:11). Let’s draw the crowds, one person at a time, one family at a time, and let’s point them to our Shepherd!